The Intimate Relationship Between Leadership and Strategy Execution

I believe it's fair to say that leadership and strategy execution, two completely different disciplines, share an intimate and symbiotic relationship within an organizational context.
I think this way because our effectiveness as leaders is often measured by the ability to identify a clear and compelling vision and turn it into actions that get us the results we seek. When we successfully move our vision to reality and have lagging indicators that prove it, we can say that Execution is often the result of good Leadership.

Here are some key points that highlight and support my premise that these two share a co-dependent relationship:

Vision and Strategy:

  1. A leader is responsible for and carries the vision of the organization. That vision guides the company's strategic direction and must be melded into its strategy each year.
  2. Execution is the process through which strategy gets implemented, including the plans derived from our organizational vision.
To better understand this, let's take one of the many quality examples from Apple Inc., a company well known for its innovative products and design. These two elements have consistently connected Apple's strategy to its success throughout its brief history.

Co-founder Steve Jobs had a visionary approach that focused on creating products that were not only technologically advanced but also aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly. It's difficult to argue with the success that Apple products have had on the market over time. The company's vision has always centered on pushing the boundaries of innovation and design, and it proves my point that good Leadership can produce good outcomes, and great leaders can produce even greater outcomes when the vision is relentlessly focused upon.

Apple's strategy has always been to seamlessly integrate its hardware, software, and services to create a unique and compelling user experience. This strategic thought process is evident in its products, including successes, such as the iPhone, iPad, Macintosh Computer, iWatch, and others.

The most notable breakthrough came with the creation of "I Tunes," a software platform that compelled Apple product users to enter into a subscription to hear their favorite music. In one straightforward transaction, people could put thousands of songs in their pocket, pay for multiple downloads of music and other content, and guarantee continued access and use on any Apple device they owned.

Here's how Apple's vision connects to its strategy:

Innovation and Design

Apple's vision emphasizes innovation and design as key differentiators. The company has invested heavily in research and development to introduce groundbreaking technologies and a focus on a sleek, minimalist design in all its products. There's no denying Apple's widely-held user acceptance across the world.

Ecosystem Integration

With its seamless and integrated user experience across all its devices, Apple's strategy involved building and continuing to develop a closed-loop ecosystem where hardware, software (iOS, macOS), and services (iTunes, iCloud) work harmoniously—strongly encouraging (committing?) users to remain within the "Apple ecosystem" for most if not for all of their lifetime.

Jobs emphasized the importance of simplicity and user-friendliness and tied it back to Apple's strategy through its creative and intuitive user interfaces, reducing complexity and ensuring a positive and easy user experience. This simplicity equates to user-friendliness, and it has become a hallmark of every one of its products. I know as I can attest to having purchased close to a hundred Apple products in my lifetime.

Equally impressive is that Apple is less than a 40-year-old company.

With this example, Apple's vision of innovation, design excellence, and a seamless user experience directly informs its strategy decisions. It leads to developing and marketing products that align with their principles. The successful Execution of its strategy has contributed to Apple's sustained success and position as one of the world's leading technology companies.

Motivation and Action:

  1. Leadership inspires the people on an organization's teams, motivating them to accomplish great things.
  2. Execution requires team members to carry out those actions collaboratively as part of a coordinated plan that drives critical initiatives at every level of the organization.
Perhaps no other company exhibited these two qualities better than Zappos, an online shoe and clothing retailer, now owned by Amazon (since 2009), known for its exceptional customer service and unique company culture.

Zappos' CEO, the late Tony Hsieh, was highly motivated to create a company prioritizing customer satisfaction and employee happiness. His motivation was to build a business where people enjoyed coming to work and where customer service went beyond everyone's expectations.

To put his motivation into action, Hsieh implemented several key strategies:

Zappos built a customer-centric culture where employees were encouraged to do whatever was necessary to make customers happy. They offered free shipping, a 365-day return policy, and leveraged a strong focus on engaging with customers.

Hsieh wanted a workplace where employees felt empowered and engaged. Zappos adopted a "holacratic" organizational structure, promoting self-management. Employees were encouraged to take ownership of their roles and contribute to decision-making by being more than online sales representatives.

Hsieh was motivated to create a values-driven company that would develop and embrace core values that would guide the company's decisions and actions. These values included;

1)      delivering a "WOW" through service,

2)      embracing and driving change and

3)      creating fun while keeping things a little weird.

Decision-Making and Implementation

The connection between motivation and action at Zappos is evidence of how a company's Leadership, driven by one person's vision, could take specific steps to create a work environment and customer experience aligned with its motivating values. The result was a company often praised for its outstanding customer service and employee satisfaction. The motivation to prioritize customers and employees has translated into concrete actions that have shaped Zappos' success as a business.

Following the acquisition in 2009, Amazon chose to maintain Zappos as an independent subsidiary and brand, allowing it to continue to capitalize on its tremendous culture—this decision aligned with Amazon's approach to other acquisitions, preserving its unique brand identity and cultures.

Zappos has retained its website, branding, and corporate culture, including its commitment to exceptional customer service and unique organizational structure. While there is integration at the operational level for efficiency and synergy with Amazon's broader logistics and technology capabilities, Zappos continues to operate as a distinct brand within the Amazon portfolio.

Decision-Making and Implementation:

  1. Leadership involves making decisions that guide the short and long-term aspirations of the organization.
  2. Execution is about implementing and successfully seeing those decisions to fruition at every level of the organization.
One best-in-class example that illustrates the relationship between decision-making and implementation is the strategic shift made by Microsoft under the Leadership of CEO Satya Nadella.

When Nadella became CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he inherited a company facing challenges in a highly competitive and rapidly changing technology space. Microsoft's traditional focus on Windows and Office products (SAAS or providing software as a service) was evaluated in the context of the growing importance of cloud computing and mobile technology.

Nadella made several critical decisions and implemented strategic change initiatives that transformed Microsoft toward a "cloud-first, mobile-first" strategy that acknowledged the importance of cloud computing and the rise of mobile devices.

Microsoft also invested heavily in its Azure cloud platform, offering new cloud-based services. Additionally, the company started developing software and services that were platform-agnostic, making them accessible on a variety of devices, including those running on competing operating systems.

Recognizing the need for a cultural shift, Nadella created a more collaborative and innovative culture at Microsoft.

Microsoft moved from being a "know-it-all" culture to a "learn-it-all" culture, promoting collaboration, experimentation, and a growth mindset among its team members—this cultural change aimed to accelerate innovation and adaptability while strengthening cross-functional relationships.

Microsoft strategically acquired other companies that complemented its new focus and entered several third-party partnerships to strengthen its position in key markets.

One significant move included acquiring LinkedIn to enhance its professional marketing and content networking presence and GitHub to strengthen its position in software development collaboration. Partnerships and collaborations were formed with open-source communities, reflecting a more inclusive and adaptive approach.

The successful implementation of these decisions contributed to Microsoft's transformation into a more agile and cloud-centric company. The decisions made by Satya Nadella were not only about setting a new strategic direction but also about effectively executing that direction by aligning resources, reshaping the company culture, and adapting to emerging market trends.

The example of Microsoft under Nadella's Leadership showcases how effective decision-making and strategic implementation can drive positive organizational change and performance.

Communication and Alignment:

  1. Leadership communicates the vision goals and sets expectations to ensure alignment.
  2. Execution relies on clear, consistent communication to ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.
Salesforce, a leader in the customer relationship management (CRM) space, has become known for its commitment to core values and a clear vision undergirded with proactive communication.

Salesforce's founder and CEO, Marc Benioff, has been vocal about the company's focus on not just financial success but also on positively impacting society. The company's vision often articulated as "the business of business is improving the state of the world," is consistently communicated through various channels, including official statements, keynote speeches, and social media, so much so that it is difficult to mistake where the company stands.

Salesforce reinforces its vision internally by integrating its core values into its company culture, hiring processes, and employee engagement programs. The company has been recognized for promoting equality, sustainability, and philanthropy, aligning its business goals with a broader social purpose.

Accountability and Results:

  1. Leadership establishes a culture of accountability by establishing performance expectations that are firmly adhered to.
  2. Execution involves individuals being accountable for contributing to their team's needed results.
A well-known example of a company often cited for its accountability that delivers results is Under the Leadership of its founder and former CEO, Jeff Bezos, Amazon has been known for its relentless focus on innovation and operational excellence, which has led them to build a culture of accountability at all levels of their organization.

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The company encourages team members to take ownership of their projects and initiatives, giving them full responsibility and credit for the results. This accountability, when combined with a commitment to Execution, is where Amazon places a high value on delivering results quickly and efficiently. If any process or system fails to perform at a high level, they pry it apart and rework it until it meets expectations. It takes the position of never being satisfied.

Customer Interaction and Intimacy

Another critical element to Amazon's success is its customer focus. The company is known for its obsession with its customers and focus on meeting their needs. Like Apple Inc., it's deeply ingrained in their culture to make their services as easy as possible.

Amazon's commitment to accountability and results is seen in its ability to consistently deliver its customers the broadest range of products and services, rapidly innovate when necessary, and continually adapt to changing market conditions. And do this globally, which is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Bringing Leadership and Execution Together

There are other areas and examples where Leadership intersects with Execution that are worth exploring, but I'll stop here.

In essence, Leadership sets the stage for effective Execution by providing direction, motivation, and a framework for decision-making. On the other hand, successful Execution reinforces and validates the effectiveness of Leadership. The two are interdependent, and a strong relationship between Leadership and Execution is essential for organizational success and achieving its overall objectives.

Embracing these synergies empowers businesses to navigate complexity and learn to thrive in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. As leaders and strategists, we must recognize and nurture this interplay, for it's within this intimate relationship that a company's true potential is found.

Monte Pedersen is the Principal and Owner of the CDA Group LLC, a unique leadership training firm focused on developing an organization’s ability to get things done. The CDA Group works seamlessly inside of your organization to make execution management a core competency.

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